Laughing at street harassment during Black Swan

Image via netkushi.com

I watched Black Swan last night. If you haven’t seen it, in one scene, an old man makes very obscene and sexually explicit and aggressive motions and faces at Natalie Portman’s character while they ride what appears to be an empty subway car at night. She looks alarmed and very uncomfortable. He is enjoying her discomfort. After all, wasn’t that his intent? To humiliate her? To shame her for being female? To bully and exert power over her since she is a young, lone woman on the subway at night?

Alright, nothing new there. Street harassment happens all the time, including on the subway. I would have cheered if she’d yelled at him, reported him, or shamed him in some way, but she didn’t and I so just felt for her. Her reaction is very typical (I know it’s one I’ve had many times) and not blameworthy. She was just riding the subway. She shouldn’t have to make it her vendetta to shame all harassers she encounters if she doesn’t want to.

What shocked me wasn’t the scene, but the number of people in the audience who laughed very loudly during the scene, like it was a funny joke.

Why is a woman’s obvious discomfort and humiliation funny?

(Side note, similarly, why are prison rape jokes still considered funny? They aren’t. It’s RAPE. I’m disappointed every time I see that “joke” in movies and tv shows, like when I recently re-watched Arrested Development).

It really upset me to hear the laughter. I know street harassment is often portrayed as a joke (when it’s addressed at all), especially when it’s an “ugly” or “poor” man harassing a “beautiful” or “wealthy” woman (or in this case, an old man harassing a young one), but I haven’t had to actually witness people treating the issue in such a blatant hahaha way. I didn’t like it.

And I know there are times when street harassment can be funny – like some of the ridiculous things harassers say and the contexts when they say it or when a woman is able to stand up to them in a clever and empowering way – but usually it is not. It’s a pretty serious issue that prevents women from having the same access to public spaces as men and that often makes them feel less comfortable in public spaces. It’s just rarely treated that way in the media.

If you’ve seen the movie, what did you think? Did you laugh? Did others in the theater laugh? Is there some humor there that I’m just not seeing?

9 Responses to Laughing at street harassment during Black Swan

  1. Hugo says:

    Yes, saw it in Hollywood and heard a few snickers — but some of them struck me as the sort that expressing deep discomfort rather than humor. Sometimes we laugh because we don’t take things seriously, sometimes because we laugh out of uncomfortable recognition. Hard to know.

    (The laughs and gasps at the infamous end to the masturbation scene were an example of the latter.)

    The main point, however, is sadly right on: not enough people take this seriously.

  2. Shermel says:

    I watched this movie last night as well!

    However, I did not laugh at the man defiling himself infront of her. I was disgusted and I immaturely yelled, “ewwww!” I know this happens all the time in New York City, and well, it happens everywhere. What I was a little surprised to see was that it happened to a white woman. For some reason, I just felt that non-white women got the worst of the worst when it came to street harassment. This isn’t a “who has it worse?” comment, it just made me think, disgusting men are disgusting to everyone. Nina (Portman) played it as well as she could and just looked away. It is sad but sometimes this is all you can do at the moment besides scolding the man or assaulting him.

  3. Sara says:

    I saw the movie a few weeks ago while I was home for the holidays, and was struck by the exact same thing — a large portion of the audience seemed to find the scene amusing, and it was frustrating to realize how many people don’t see street harassment as a real threat. Of course, I grew up in a small town in the south, where street harassment isn’t as much as an issue as it is in many larger cities, so maybe the people in the theater really don’t understand how bad it can be… However, It was still disturbing to me, as someone who’s frequently experienced harassment, for people to find it funny. Thanks so much for addressing this!

  4. B. says:

    I haven’t seen it yet (I want to), so I can’t speak to that scene, but I can tell you that I’ve been the recipient of COUNTLESS bouts of extremely vulgar street harassment (most verbal, but a few physical, and a handful of public masturbations for my benefit) in DC these past 4 years. Quite sadly, I have a male friend who, when I tell him about the things that are said to me, he laughs hysterically because he finds the comments and incidences so absurd. He always tries to reassure me that he’s not laughing at my discomfort, but that he’s laughing at how bizarre the gross comments are, and how stupid the men are.

    But the thing is? I don’t care. I don’t care why he’s laughing. These experiences always leave me feeling violated, disrespected, and disgusted. And that’s the bottom line. –And there is NOTHING funny about those feelings.

    Translation? My friend shouldn’t laugh.

    The thing is, most of the comments women receive ARE extremely bizarre. Yes, they are absurd. And absurdity can be funny. But it doesn’t matter. If someone is obviously being violated, there is nothing funny about it, not even the absurdity of the situation.

  5. Dawn says:

    Holly, I saw the movie for the 3rd time last night (clearly, I really like it) and it was the first time that the audience laughed during that scene. I was appalled and loudly stated, “It’s NOT funny.”

    After the movie, my friends (all of whom are activists for gender equality) expressed their disgust with the man’s actions and with the audience’s laughter. I took that moment to talk to them about street harassment and recommended your book.

  6. Erik K. says:

    For the record I have not seen the movie. I also agree with the previous comments. In order to add a little variety to the conversation, I am going to comment from and on the male view point.

    In regards to B’s male friend laughing: Most men consider other men who masturbate in public to be pathetic and weak, not scary. Therefore, those men are “laughable”.

    Men also have a difficult time understanding “visual violation”, and thus cannot relate to it. Men do understand visual disrespect. To make your friend understand how you feel, ask him how he would feel if a group of hostile men pointed at him, laughed and made disparaging comments his appearance. That would not be so funny.

    People laugh at things that are not funny because to not laugh would mean confronting the unpleasant reality of what they are seeing. It the case of street harassment, it means that:

    – When men get old they are doomed to be ignored by young women. Therefore, they can only harass them to get their attention.
    – Most women have not learned to be assertive and are only able to be passive when harassed.
    – As individuals who see this harassment as it happens, we are also passive and do nothing to intervene. Therefore, we are not the heroic and strong people we like to think we are.
    – As a society we tolerate bullying in all it’s forms, regardless of whether the victim is a woman, a child, a minority, a person with a disability, and more.

    It is much easier to laugh and get on with enjoying the movie.

  7. Liz says:

    I agree with Erik. People are laughing at the man, more than the woman’s reaction. They see him as pathetic and weak, and assume she or a real-life would as well Obviously this speaks to people’s lack of awareness as to how this type of behavior FEELS for the woman experiencing it.

    But it also speaks to our society’s acceptance that a certain range of men will display such anti-social sexual behavior. A zero-sum society’s gonna have its Omega males. That’s the way it is. Good girls should just ignore their pathetic calls for attention.

    In a perfect world, or a better one, people would certainly care about how the harassed woman feels. And maybe, just maybe, they’d wonder why so many of our sons end up with the social skills of a shark.

  8. Wow, so many great comments and insights! Thank you very much

  9. […] auront peut-être trouvé cette scène drôle. Comme Holly Kearl se le demande alors que les spectateurs de la salle où elle se trouvait ont ri pendant la scène, qu’il y […]

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